Cool Day in History: May Day, 1886

“It was the very dawning of the day when the term ‘dignity of labor’ meant something.”

-George E. McNeill, labor historian

At a time when industrial wage slaves worked 10 to 16 hour days, the 8-hour day became a rallying cry:

On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicenter for the 8-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike with the anarchists in the forefront of the public’s eye. With their fiery speeches and revolutionary ideology of direct action, anarchists and anarchism became respected and embraced by the working people and despised by the capitalists.

Workers in greater numbers continued to walk out in a nationwide general strike. For the next few days they demonstrated peacefully. Finally, police opened fire on workers locked out of plant in Chicago. At a rally later at Haymarket, someone threw a bomb, killing seven police officers and four civilians. Eight anarchist “martyrs” were convicted of conspiracy, and four were executed.

Truly, history has a lot to teach us about the roots of our radicalism. When we remember that people were shot so we could have the 8-hour day; if we acknowledge that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend; when we recall 8-year old victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labor only to be beat down by the police and company thugs, we understand that our current condition cannot be taken for granted – people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today, and there is still a lot more to fight for.

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